Bad iPhone notches are happening to good Android phones


Copying the iPhone’s design has never been done with more speed or cynicism

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I’ve been coming to Mobile World Congress for close to a decade now, and I’ve never seen the iPhone copied quite so blatantly and cynically as I witnessed during this year’s show. MWC 2018 will go down in history as the launch platform for a mass of iPhone X notch copycats, each of them more hastily and sloppily assembled than the next.

No effort is being made to emulate the complex Face ID system that resides inside Apple’s notch; companies like Noa and Ulefone are in such a hurry to get their iPhone lookalike on the market that they haven’t even customized their software to account for the new shape of the screen. More than one of these notched handsets at MWC had the clock occluded by the curved corner of the display.

Ulefone T2 Pro at MWC 2018

Ulefone T2 Pro
Photo by Sam Byford / The Verge

Asus is one of the biggest consumer electronics companies in the world, and yet its copycat notch is probably the most galling of them all. The Zenfone 5 looks and feels like a promising phone, featuring loud speakers, the latest Sony imaging sensor with larger-than-average pixels, and a price somewhere south of $499. I should be celebrating it right now, but instead I’m turning away in disgust as Asus leans into its copying by calling Apple a “Fruit Company” repeatedly. If you’re going to copy the iPhone, at least have the decency to avoid trying to mock it.

It would be stating the obvious to say that this trend is not a good one. I’m absolutely of the belief that everyone, Apple included, copies or borrows ideas from everyone else in the mobile industry. This is a great way to see technical improvements disseminated across the market. But the problem with these notched screens on Android phones is that they’re purely cosmetic. Apple’s notch at the top of the iPhone X allows the company to have a nearly borderless screen everywhere else, plus it accommodates the earpiece and TrueDepth camera for Face ID. Asus et al have a sizeable “chin” at the bottom of their phones, so the cutouts at the top are self-evidently motivated by the desire to just look — not function, look — like an iPhone X.

Part of me sympathizes with manufacturers like Asus who are desperately scrabbling around for a distinguishing feature. I also saw the Zenfone 5 Lite at MWC, which had a simpler design with symmetrical, though still small, bezels, but felt anonymous by comparison. If I challenge you to describe what the Zenfone 4 or Zenfone 6 looked like, you’d struggle — but we all know that the Zenfone 5 is a shameless iPhone X clone. That degree of notoriety and attention is worth something to smaller contenders in the smartphone market like Asus, Ulefone, Doogee, and Noa.

But what’s LG’s excuse? Or Huawei’s?

LG G7 Neo
Photo: Ynet

I’ve verified for myself that the above leak of the LG G7, being shown off behind closed doors at MWC 2018, is legitimate. This is LG’s planned next flagship device, which is likely to become official in June. For the past couple of years, LG made a big effort to launch its flagship phone alongside Samsung’s big launch at MWC, but this year LG will be three months late. Could that be because LG had to scramble to redesign its phone so as to more closely resemble the iPhone X? LG would tell you no, but I encourage you to look at the image of the G7 and decide for yourself.

Huawei P20
Photo: Evan Blass

Also later than usual is Huawei’s flagship launch, with the P20 schedule for a late-March debut. Like the Asus Zenfone 5, the P20 looks like it’s copying the iPhone X on both the front and back. On the rear, Huawei positions its cameras in the same spot and orientation as on the iPhone, and on the front it introduces a tiny notch up top allied to a quite substantial bezel at the bottom. I guess we can give Huawei credit for having a different sort of notch.

As every phone manufacturer pursues a minimalist design philosophy, a problem emerges of how to add charm, humanity, and character to devices that are becoming essentially just a big screen. Apple took the risky step of introducing its signature notch, and the positive response from iPhone X owners together with the industry reaction at MWC this week have vindicated that choice. Others will ride the iPhone X’s coattails, they’ll soak up some of the halo effect by notching their own screens, but that fad won’t last. People will quickly learn that all notches are not made equal and this time next year we’ll probably be looking at some other disfiguration of Android devices as the latest experiment.

Asus Zenfone 5
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

For 2018, though, we’re stuck with a deluge of hurried notch designs. Even the OnePlus 6 appears to be joining the trend, which would be no surprise given how similar the OnePlus 5 was to the iPhone 7. It’s already a borderline radical design decision to just have a phone without a notch, which is what Samsung, HMD Global (under the Nokia brand), and Sony all did. They stuck with the designs they’d been developing for months and years, whereas others either rushed to throw something our way for MWC — like Asus, whose flagship Zenfone 5Z won’t be out until June — or pushed everything back in order to be able to Frankenstein the iPhone X notch into their latest hardware.

Short-term thinking is leading the majority of Android phone manufacturers down the wrong path. iPhone plagiarism may stir some hype and notoriety for a time, but it leaves these companies vulnerable to Apple’s whims, and it never allows them to build their own independent design language and philosophy. It makes Android look like a sea of iPhone knockoffs instead of a viable, equivalent (many would say superior) alternative. Samsung jumped off this bandwagon a few years ago, and it’s profitably built up a design pedigree that is now unmistakably its own. Isn’t it time for LG, Huawei, Asus, and everyone else making Android phones to do the same?

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